To many, the idea of playing professional sports is a dream come true. It is the ultimate aspiration of billions of people around the world. A pro athlete, especially at the highest level, often reaps all the benefits of what people strive for in life.
Athletes are admired and often even idolized by millions of children who are inspired to fill their shoes one day. They get to do a job they love by playing the game they adored since they were young. Now, top athletes in the world make more money in pro sports in one year than a doctor, lawyer, or politician will make in their entire lives. For instance, the average NBA salary in 2023 was $9.5 million. In the eyes of many, the top athletes in the world are living the ultimate dream. Most athletes will agree with that sentiment, too, with one interesting exception: Nikola Jokic.
Jokic is a Serbian basketball player who plays for the Denver Nuggets. Picked 41st overall in the second round of the 2014 NBA draft, Jokic was deemed too out of shape to be successful in such a competitive environment. He was yet another story of proving the doubters wrong, quickly becoming one of the most dominant players in the league. At just 28, he is already a two-time MVP, five-time all-star, and has been named to five all-NBA teams. This past season, he fell just short of averaging a triple double — meaning obtaining double-digits in points, rebounds, and assists per game for an entire season — a feat only achieved by Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook. As a center, Jokic’s job would traditionally be to grab rebounds and score in the paint, with very little passing or facilitating. So the idea of averaging nearly 10 assists per game on top of his 25 points and 12 rebounds this season is unfathomable. Now widely regarded as the best player in the world, he led the Denver Nuggets to its first NBA championship this past June. In the finals, he posted an average line of 30.2 points, 14.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, and 1.4 steals, soundly winning the Finals MVP award.
After winning the championship, most viewers would have believed Jokic was on top of the world. Jokic himself held a different perspective, which shocked viewers on live international television.
Post-game interviews after NBA championships have some iconic moments of their own. In 2008, Kevin Garnett’s overwhelming “Anything is possible!” rang around Boston and onto the basketball world, a line still used to this day. In 2016, LeBron James emotionally belted: “Cleveland! This is for you!” after their long-awaited title. This is usually the chance for players to set all their hard work free, and display their emotions. Not for Nikola.
“It’s good, it’s good. The job is done, we can go home now,” was Jokic’s first reaction to winning the ultimate prize in basketball, and the highest possible achievement in his profession. In his press conference later that night, he was asked if he was looking forward to a parade. Jokic put his hands to his face in frustration, perhaps in a satirical manner. “No, I need to go home … It’s [an] amazing feeling but, like I said before, it’s not everything in the world … Nobody likes [their] job, or maybe they do – they’re lying.” The crowd chuckled.
It would be one thing if he is the type of person to remain composed, or even nonchalant, in successful moments, but some believe Jokic reacted with more enthusiasm to winning a horse-race back in Serbia this summer than he did to winning that championship. Nikola is seen dancing gleefully while holding up his trophy.
This caused mixed reactions. Some people acknowledge that it’s his choice to react how he wants to, and there isn’t one way a player needs to act. It’s more important that a player is genuine, and does what he wants; no one can tell a player how he should react to an achievement, and he doesn’t have to celebrate the simple act of doing his job. Others are discouraged by this, stressing that playing in the NBA is not a typical job, and he should be more grateful. So many people would give everything to be in his position, and to them, he is taking it for granted.
Excluding endorsements, Jokic will make more than $276 million dollars over the next five years — an average salary of more than $55 million annually. On top of that, he is now in a club of just four Serbian title winners, and the only one to win an NBA Finals MVP award. He had the 12th highest selling jersey in basketball, and isn’t higher on the list only because he doesn’t have a gigantic personality off the court. Ironic for a player nicknamed the Joker, isn’t it?
To him, however, basketball is just another nine-to-five job: you clock in, work hard, clock out, get paid, and go home.
Nikola Jokic is an enigma on the court—for his dominant fundamentals, and the ease at which he tears teams apart; and off the court, for his enthusiasm — or lack thereof — about his role as an NBA superstar, champion, and mega-millionaire.